29 November 2010
Yesterday morning, we opened the service with hymn number eighty-nine in the Book of Common Praise, and it will be the opening hymn of every service until Christmas. I'd been looking forward to it for weeks, as had others in the choir, and probably throughout the parish. Its time had come, the city now blanketed in snow and nightfall coming before most of us get home from work. And like a dominant drum, it delivered a heavy and resounding beat in the liturgical rhythm of the year, making minds and hearts bristle with the anticipation of the joyous significance of what was soon to be observed with its iconic first line: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
The green linens on the altar had been exchanged for purple, and the advent candle stood on a small table just in front of the sanctuary. Father Steve commented as he lit it that he was considering moving it from the right side of the sanctuary to the left, as parents with small children typically sit on the right, in the front pew. "Fire is attractive", he said with a chuckle, and several parishioners chuckled in agreement.
He spoke on the imagery of light in the Gospels, of Christ as the Light of the World. Pointed out the beauty of that particular image. The light shines in the darkness, wrote St. John, and the darkness did not overcome it. Water can quench fire and air can wick away water. But all the world's darkness is powerless to stop a single speck of light. Too often, something is lost in the way we talk about Christ, as though Christmas marked simply the arrival of that which would, eventually, make a legalistic sort of payment for the sins of humanity.
There is a beauty in forgiveness, to be sure, but it is not the entirety of grace. If we think of Christ only as a sacrificial lamb, then we can think of ourselves only as bad people needing something to paint us good. It's a disheartening thought, and offers us little but guilt. Fortunately, that is not the proposition the faith gives us. That perspective misses what is perhaps the point: that when He arrived, the rightful King had landed, Heaven had broken into Earth, and nothing would ever be the same. He was not simply the means by which our debt would be paid. He was the means by which we would be changed, the means by which a broken world could be put to rights. The curtain was torn, and light irreversibly spilled into the darkness.
There is a teaching in the Orthodox church that is fundamental to their theology, and in my mind, ought to be fundamental to ours. "Christ did not come to make bad men good," it teaches. "He came to make dead men live." It has been many years since any single teaching has put the hook in me like this one did. It says so much with so few words. It says, like Christ Himself did, the Kingdom of God is at hand. It attests to the abundant life we are built to have now, here on earth, and lets the afterlife worry about itself. It says that yes, we have made mistakes, yes, we have gone wrong, and God intends not to punish us, but to make us what we truly are, to make us more alive than we can be by ourselves. Here and now. And that contagious light has arrived. Emmanuel, says the hymn, using the Hebrew. God is with us.
And so we arrive at Advent, as yet recollecting the voice of one calling in the wilderness, but looking ahead to the rift in the veil, the lighting of the beacon, the spark of hope that the black of a thousand nights cannot swallow or diminish.